Nobel prize to UNHCR seen as conservative choice

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, announced Wednesday, brought with it an expected sense of several anti-climax in the Norwegian capital.

It reflected the reluctance of the Nobel Committee to make decisions that could be controversial on the international scene.

The "hottest" name nominated this year was that of Lech Walesa, leader of the Polish free trade union, Solidarity, but committee members were wary of appearing to be provocative toward the Soviet Union, with which Norway shares a common border.

Other nominations passed over by the committee include Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, and Robert Mugabe, prime minister of zimbabwe, for their work in bringing about the Rhodesian settlement.

The committee chose instead the least controversial name on its list: the anonymous United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a choice made doubly "safe" because it won the peace prize once before, in 1954, three years after its formation.

It was the award in 1973 to Henry Kissinger, then US secretary of state, and North Vietnamese diplomat Lee duc Tho for their work in bringing about an end to the Vietnam war that caused possibly the greatest controversy in the peace prize's 80-year history.

But almost equally controversial was the joint award in 1978 to the late Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel, for the Camp David agreement.

Faced with strong criticism for such choices, both internationally and more directly within Scandinavia, the Nobel Committee has since then played it safe.

In 1979 the prize went to Mother Teresa, a nun working in the slums of Calcutta. Last year it was won by Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Argentinian civil rights worker.

ocus world attention to some degree on the situation in Afghanistan where an estimated 1.7 million refugees have fled to neighboring Pakistan in the wake of the Soviet invasion.

The growing refugee problem in southern Africa is also known as a major source of worry for former Danish Prime Minister Poul Hartling, who heads the UN agency.

In April Mr. Hartling's office organized a conference on African refugees in general, which raised pledges of $572 million in aid.

The agency had also been actively involved in the plight of the "boat people, " refugees fleeing communist regimes in Indochina.

It also gives food, shelter, and first aid to more than 10 million refugees worldwide. Lately it has extended its work to supplying refugees with the tools to start a new life, building roads to semipermanent camps, and providing water, which also benefits local populations.

Mr. Hartling, who will probably fly to Oslo to receive the award in December, was appointed head of the UNHCR in 1978.

The Nobel prizes were set up in the will of Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, who died in 1986.

Despite being dismissed by Sweden's celebrated dramatist August Strindberg as "dynamite money," the prizes set up by Nobel "to those who during the preceding year have conferred the greatest benefit of mankind" still carry a lot of international prestige.

The peace prize is the best known of the six awards. Nobel stipulated that it should be announced and presented in Norway, at the time of his death still a part of Sweden.

The other prizes set up with his $9.2 billion were for medicine, physics, chemistry, and literature. The economics prize was added in 1968, funded by the Bank of Sweden.

There are six different Nobel committees, one for each prize. Each has five members and each may call upon other experts for advice.

Nobel candidates are proposed by previous Nobel laureates, members of the Nobel committees, and by professors in the various fields covered by the prizes. But the complex process does not stop there.

Authors' organizations may nominate for the literature prize.Members of certain international parliamentary or legal organizations may nominate for the peace award.

When this year's Nobel laureates arrive in Stockholm and Oslo in December to pick up their prizes they will be presented with checks for 1 million Swedish kronor ($200,000).

The original fund set up by Nobel for the prizes has grown over the years. It is now worth more than 250 million Swedish kronor in market-value terms, thanks to astute financial management by a small independent organization with a staff of 12 called the Nobel Foundation.

The Foundation was established in 1900 and is the sole owner of the fund capital.

In his will Nobel stipulated that the fund should be invested in "safe securites."

Today sound business sense combines with idealism to provide a prize that is really worth something.

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